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We read that on one occasion, when a picture by some Dutch artist, representing peasants at their sports, was shown to Louis XIV., he angrily exclaimed, "Take away those vermin!" Such subjects had never been chosen by French artists, nor indeed had they been seen anywhere in Europe before the Dutch artists began to paint them in the seventeenth century. The Italian painters of the early and the later Renaissance, working almost exclusively for the churches, or for the palaces of pleasure-loving princes, did not consider the peasant or the laboring man, by himself, a proper subject for his art. If he were introduced at any time into picture or bas-relief, it was only as a necessary actor in some religious story, such as "The Adoration of the Shepherds," or in the representations of the months or the seasons, as in the Fountain of the Public Square at Perugia, where we see the peasant engaged in the labors of the farm or vineyard: cutting the wheat, gathering in the grapes, and treading out the wine, and, in the later season, dressing the hog he has been killing; for in those less sophisticated times, Art, no more than Poetry, despised the ruder side of rustic life.
The German artists of the sixteenth century introduced peasants and peasant-life into their designs whenever the subject admitted. Albert Duerer was especially given to this, and it often gives a particular savor, sometimes a half-humorous expression, to his treatment of even religious subjects; as where, in his design, "The Repose in Egypt," he shows Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus, making a water-trough out of a huge log, and a bevy of cherub-urchins about him gathering up the chips. Mary, meanwhile, as the peasant mother, sits by, spinning and rocking the cradle of the Holy Child with her foot.
But these examples only serve to make clearer the fact that in the earlier times there was no place found in art for the representation of the laboring man, whether in the field or in the shop, except as an illustration of some allegorical or religious theme. Nor in the Dutch pictures that Louis XIV. despised, and that our own time finds so valuable for their artistic qualities, was there anything outside of their beauty or richness of tone or color to redeem their coarseness and vulgarity. There was no poetry in the treatment, nor any sympathy with anything higher than the grossest guzzling, fighting, and horseplay. The great monarch, who, according to his lights, was a man of delicacy and refinement, was certainly right in contemning such subjects, and it is perhaps to his credit that he did not care enough for "Art for Art's sake" to excuse the brutality of the theme for the sake of the beauty of the painting.
The next appearance of the peasant in art was of a very different sort, and represented a very different state of social feeling from the "peasants" of the Dutch painters. In the Salon of 1850 there appeared a picture called "The Sower" and representing a young peasant sowing grain. There was nothing in the subject to connect it particularly with any religious symbolism--not even with the Parable of the Sower who went forth to sow; nor with any series of personifications of the months. This was a simple peasant of the Norman coast, in his red blouse and blue trousers, his legs wrapped in straw, and his weather-beaten hat, full of holes. He marches with the rhythmic step made necessary by his task, over the downs that top the high cliffs, followed by a cloud of crows that pounce upon the grain as he sows it. At first sight there would seem to be nothing in this picture to call for particular notice; but the public, the artists, the critics, were with one accord strongly drawn to it. Something in the picture appealed to feelings deeper than mere curiosity, and an interest was excited such as did not naturally belong to a picture of a man sowing a field of grain. The secret was this: that a man born and bred in the midst of laboring people, struggling with the hard necessities of life--himself a laborer, and one who knew by experience all the lights and shades of the laborer's life--had painted this picture out of his own deep sympathy with his fellows, and to please himself by reproducing the most significant and poetical act in the life of the farmer.
The painter of this picture, the first man of our time to give the laborer in the fields and on the farm a place in art, and to set people to thinking about him, as a man, not merely as an illustration of some sacred text, or an image in a book of allegories, was Jean-Francois Millet, known as the peasant painter of peasants.
He was born at Gruchy, a small hamlet on the coast of Normandy, where his family, well known in the region for several generations, lived by the labor of their hands, cultivating their fields and exercising the simple virtues of that pastoral life, without ambition and without desire for change. This content was a part of the religion of the country and must not be looked upon as arguing a low state of intelligence or of manners. Of their neighbors we have no account, but the Millet household contained many of the elements that go to sustain the intellectual no less than the spiritual life. If there was plain living, there was high thinking; there were books and of the best, and more than one member of the circle valued learning for its own sake. Millet owed much to his grandmother, a woman of great strength of character and of a deeply religious nature. As his godmother she gave him his name, calling him Jean, after his father, and Francois, after Saint Francis of Assisi. As is usual in Catholic countries, the boy was called after the name of his patron saint, and in the case of Millet, Saint Francis, the ardent lover of nature, the friend of the birds and of all the animate creation, was well chosen as the guardian of one who was to prove himself, all his life, the passionate lover of nature.
The boyhood of Millet was passed at home. He had no schooling except some small instruction in Latin from the village priest and from a neighboring curate, but he made good use of what he learned. He worked on the farm with his father and his men, ploughing, harrowing, sowing, reaping, mowing, winnowing--in a word, sharing actively and contentedly in all the work that belongs to the farmer's life. And in the long winter evenings or in the few hours of rest that the day afforded, he would hungrily devour the books that were at hand--the "Lives of the Saints," the "Confessions of Saint Augustine," the "Life of Saint Jerome," and especially his letters, which he read and re-read all his life. These and the philosophers of Port Royal, with Bossuet, and Fenelon, with the Bible and Virgil, were his mental food. Virgil and the Bible he read always in the Latin; he was so familiar with them both that, when a man, his biographer, Sensier, says he never met a more eloquent translator of these two books. When the time came, therefore, for Millet to go up to Paris, he was not, as has been said by some writer, an ignorant peasant, but a well-taught man who had read much and digested what he had read, and knew good books from bad. The needs of his narrow life absorbed him so seriously that the seeds of art that lay hid in his nature found a way to the light with difficulty. But his master-passion was soon to assert itself, and, as in all such cases, in an unexpected manner.
Millet's attempts at drawing had hitherto been confined to studies made in hours stolen from rest. He had copied the engravings found in an old family Bible, and he had drawn, from his window, the garden, the stable, the field running down to the edge of the high cliff, and with the sea in the horizon, and he had sometimes tried his hand at sketching the cows and sheep in the pasture. But he was now to take a step in advance. Coming home one day from church, he walked behind an old man bent with age and feebleness, painfully making his way. The foreshortening and the movement of the man's figure struck the boy forcibly, and in a flash he discovered the secret of perspective and the mystery of planes. He ran quickly home, got a pencil and drew from memory a picture of the old man, so lively in its resemblance that as soon as his parents saw it, they recognized it and fell a-laughing. Talk with his boy revealed to the father his son's strong desire to be an artist; but before such a serious step could be taken, it was necessary to consult with some person better able to judge than any one in the Millet household. Cherbourg, the nearest large town, was the natural place where to seek advice; thither Millet and his father repaired, the boy with two drawings under his arm that he had made for the occasion, and these were submitted to the critical eye of Mouchel, an old pupil of David, who eked out the scanty living he got by painting by giving lessons in drawing. When the two drawings made by young Millet were shown him he refused to believe they were the work of the lad of fifteen. The very subjects chosen by the boy showed something out of the common. One was a sort of home idyl: two shepherds were in a little orchard close, one playing on the flute, the other listening; some sheep were browsing near. The men wore the blouse and wooden shoes of Millet's country; the orchard was one that belonged to his father. The other drawing showed a starry night. A man was coming from the house with loaves of bread in his hand which he gave to another man who eagerly received them. Underneath, in Latin, were the words from St. Luke: "Though he will not rise and give him because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him as many as he needeth." A friend of Millet's, who saw these drawings thirty years after, said they were the work of a man who already knew the great significance of art, the effects it was capable of, and what were its resources.
Mouchel consented to receive Millet as a pupil, but, as it proved, he could do little for him in the way of direct teaching. He left the boy free to follow his own devices. He said to him: "Do whatever you wish; choose whatever model you find in my studio that pleases you, and study in the Museum." This might not be the course to follow with every boy, but Mouchel had the artist's penetration and knew with whom he had to deal.
The death of Millet's father interrupted his studies and he returned home for awhile to help his mother on the farm. But it was thought best that he should keep on with the work he had begun. The grandmother urged his return: "My Francois," she said, "we must accept the will of God. Thy father, my son, Jean-Louis, said that you were to be a painter; obey him, and go back to Cherbourg."
Millet did not need persuasion from his family. Friends in Cherbourg urged him to come back, promised him commissions, and assured him a place in the studio of Langlois, a painter of a higher grade than Mouchel, who had recently set up his easel in the town. Once more established at Cherbourg Millet continued his studies after the same easy fashion with Langlois as with his former master. Langlois, who was as much impressed by his pupil's talent as Mouchel had been and willing to serve him, made a personal appeal to the mayor and council, asking that Millet, as a promising young artist and one likely to do credit to the town, might be assisted in going to Paris to study under better advantages than he could enjoy at home.
On the strength of this appeal, the council of Cherbourg agreed to allow Millet an annuity of four hundred francs, equal to eighty dollars. With this small sum, and the addition of two hundred francs given him at parting by his mother and grandmother, making one hundred and twenty dollars in all, Millet left his quiet life in Normandy behind him and set out for Paris, where, as his biographer, Sensier, says, he was to pass as a captive the richest years of his life.
Millet was twenty-two years old when he went first to Paris and he remained there, with occasional visits to Gruchy and Cherbourg, for the next thirteen years. Paris was, from the first, more than distasteful to him. He was thoroughly unhappy there. Outside the Louvre and the studios of a few artist-friends, he found nothing that appealed to what was deepest in him. His first experiences were unusually bitter. The struggle with poverty was hard to bear, but perhaps a more serious drawback was his want of an aim in art, of a substantial reason, so to speak, for the profession he had chosen, leading him to one false move after another in search of a subject. Unformed and unrecognized in his mind lay the desire to express in art the life he had left behind him in Normandy; but it was long before he arrived at the knowledge of himself and of his true vocation. He seems to have had no one in Paris to guide or direct him, and he rather stumbled into the studio of Delaroche, than entered it deliberately. He made but a brief stay there, and although he won the respect of his master, who would willingly have retained him as pupil and assistant, he was conscious that he learned nothing from Delaroche; and accordingly, in company with another pupil, Marolles, who had taken a great liking to him, he left the studio without much ceremony; and the two friends improvised a studio and a lodging for themselves in a garret in a poor quarter of the city, and began their search for a means of pleasing the public. But the way was not opened to either of them; they could not sell what they painted, and they were reduced to serious straits. It was not the fault of the public. Marolles was but an indifferent painter at any time, and Millet would not have blamed the public for its indifference to subjects in which he himself took no real interest.
Millet was at a loss what to do for bread. His mind ran back continually to his rural life at Gruchy. "What if I should paint men mowing or winnowing?" he said to Marolles; "their movements are picturesque!" "You could not sell them," replied his friend. "Well, then, what do you say to fauns and dryads?" "Who in Paris cares for fauns and dryads?" "What shall I do, then?" said Millet in despair. "What does the public like?" "It likes Boucher's Cupids, Watteau's Pastorals, nudities, anecdotes, and copies of the past." It was hard for Millet, but hunger drove him. He would not appeal to his family, life was as difficult for them as for him. But before yielding he would make one more trial, painting something from his own fancy. He made a small picture representing "Charity"--a sad-faced woman cherishing three children in her arms. He carried it to the dealers: not one of them would buy it. He came back to Marolles. "Give me a subject," he said, "and I will paint it."
To this time belong the pictures for which Millet has been much criticised by people who did not appreciate his position. Some of them recall Watteau, others Boucher, but they have a charm, a grace of their own; they are far from being copies of these men. Others were fanciful subjects to which Marolles gave names likely to attract the notice of picture-buyers in search of a subject. But all was in vain. The dealers were obstinate: the public unsympathetic. The highest price that was offered was never above twenty francs, or five dollars. Yet with this in his pocket, Millet deemed himself already on the high road to fortune, and saw the day not distant when he could paint at his pleasure the rustic subjects, memories of his home, that had always been in his mind.
Several times in the course of this hard novitiate, Millet had escaped from Paris for a visit to his own country. At one time he had remained for a year at Cherbourg, where he painted portraits for such small sums as he could get, and here he and one of his sitters, a young girl of Cherbourg, falling in love with one another, were married. The marriage only added, as might have been foreseen, to Millet's troubles: his wife's health was always delicate; after her marriage it became worse, and she died four years after in Paris. Not long after her death Millet married again, and this proved a fortunate venture. His wife came with him to Paris, and the struggle with life began anew. The turning-point in the long period of Millet's uncertainties and disappointments with himself came in 1849, when the political troubles of the time, and the visit of the cholera, combined to drive him and his family from Paris. They took refuge at Barbizon, a small hamlet on the outskirts of the Forest of Fontainebleau, and here, in the place that was to be forever associated with his name and work, Millet passed, with few interruptions, the remaining years of his life.
The phrase so often heard to-day, "The Barbizon School," is rather wider than a strict interpretation would warrant, since Millet and Rousseau were the only ones of the group who lived in the village. Corot was not acquainted with Millet. Decamps was never in Millet's house except as a rare visitor to his studio. Diaz lived in Paris. Jacque, the painter of sheep, was a friend of Millet, and for a time at least lived at Barbizon in the house where he lodged before he procured a home of his own. The artistic relationship between these artists is slight, except in the case of Rousseau and Diaz, and even there it is only occasionally to be detected. All these men, with Dupre, Courbet and Delacroix, were counted heretics in art by the Academy and the official critics, and as Millet was the most marked figure in the group and was greatly admired and respected by all who composed it, it was perhaps natural that they should be considered by the public as disciples of the peasant painter of Barbizon.
Here, then, at Barbizon, Millet lived for the remaining twenty-seven years of his life, dividing his day between the labors of his farm in the morning hours, painting in his studio in the afternoon--he always preferred the half-light for painting--and in the evening enjoying the society of his wife and children and of such friends as might join the circle. Occasional visits to Paris, to the galleries, and to the studios of his artist-circle, kept him in touch with the world to which he belonged. His books, too, were his unfailing companions, though he never cared to stray far beyond the circle of his youthful friendships, Homer, and Virgil, and especially the Bible, which he looked upon as the book of painters, the inexhaustible source of the noblest and most touching subjects, capable of expression in the grandest forms.
But it was in the rural life about him, the life in which he actively shared, that he found the world wherein he could pour all his thoughts, feelings, and experiences with the certainty of seeing them emerge in forms answering to his conception. It was not until he came to Barbizon that he began truly to live the artist-life as he understood it, where the work is a faithful reflection of the only things a man really cares for--the things he knows by heart. In the pictures painted at Barbizon, and in the multitude of slight sketches for subjects never painted, with finished drawings and pastels, Millet has composed a series of moral eclogues well worthy of a place with those of Virgil and Theocritus. All the world knows them; all the world loves them: the "Mother Feeding Her Children," "The Peasant Grafting," "The First Step," "Going to Work," "The Sower," "The Gleaners," "The Sheep-Shearing," "The Angelus"--even to name them would carry us far beyond our limits. They made the fame of Millet while he still lived, although the pecuniary reward of his labors was not what they deserved nor what it would have been had he earlier found his true way or had his life been prolonged to the normal limit. He died in 1875 at the age of sixty-one. Since his death more than one of his pictures has been sold at a price exceeding all that he earned during his whole lifetime. Seen from the world's side, there was much in his life that was sad and discouraging, but from the spiritual side there was far more to cheer and uplift. His private life was honorable and happy, his friends were many and among the chosen ones of the time, and he had the happiness of seeing his work accepted and rated at something like its true worth before he left it.